Dear American Media,

30 Oct

Up, up and away. As I watched the integrity of our country’s media float off into the stratosphere, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of compunction at the fact I was more than a witness, I was a conspirator. By being a player and an observer in their high-stakes game of ratings and sensationalism, I had helped to bring about this horrific moment in journalism, being dubbed by many as Balloongate.

Where was the fork in the road, Reporter Joe? When did the role of the media to inform, educate and enlighten degrade into a 24-hour news feed of an empty balloon in the sky?

Forget swine flu, President Obama needs to declare a national emergency for our nation’s press.

Law enforcement officer running towards the balloon. It was empty.

Law enforcement officer running towards the balloon. It was empty.

The ability of the media to focus on one boy NOT trapped in a balloon and NOT facing imminent death is simply astounding. What made Falcon (Ha! Falcon, classic) Keene different from so many other children facing danger and death in the United States? In the affluent northern Colorado neighborhood of Fort Collins where the Keenes lived, nearly 15 percent of the population lives under the poverty line and out of that, 8 percent are under age 18. Out of a city population of 130,000, that means more than 1,500 children in Falcon’s city are living in poverty and being forced live without the basic necessities of life.

Let’s move out of the Colorado suburbs, and jump to Chicago. In the South Side, the threat is not a hot air balloon. A Chicago youth is more likely to die from a drug overdose or be a victim of gang violence than they are to graduate from high school. The same goes for inner cities around the nation.

Where is their CNN news coverage and festering swarm of ravenous reporters? Are these children doomed to fade away in obscurity because their plight wasn’t TV-ready? Do they all need to pile into a balloon and float away before a single news camera swings their way? In the hectic 24 hours when the media was busy covering the Balloon Boy, 7,000 American students dropped out of high school.

In Balloongate, which is being touted as a watershed moment when the media became indistinguishable from a reality show, the nation’s press and viewers from coast to coast were sucked into a vortex of quick, easily-packaged news.

The Balloon Boy story had a strong visual: the repeating videos of the balloon in flight became ingrained into the public’s mind, and a sense of immediate danger: the fear that the boy could die at any moment. These elements are what made the story so TV-ready and what gave it the power to captivate millions.

But an innocent urban youth, trying to navigate the treacherous terrain of his crime-ridden neighborhood and entertaining dreams of success while living the American nightmare, just doesn’t make for good television. When that young man dies from gang violence, there will not be hours and hours of airtime discussing his life and his untimely death. Unless of course, someone happens to catch his brutal death using a video camera on his cell phone as with the case of Derrion Albert. Then you have an alarming visual to loop over and over again on the airwaves. Throw in a somber voiceover, a couple of interviews, pictures, and you have an Emmy award-winning story.

It appears as though we have reached the age where the sympathies of the American public cannot extend any further than a three-minute news package. Perhaps it’s just easier to focus on the dream-like, fantastical qualities of a boy in a balloon than on the reality of how the other half lives.

Whatever the reason, a serious breach has occurred, and there is now a gaping hole between what deserves media attention and what’s getting it. The gaping hole is the 24-hour news cycle, and it’s eating our children alive.

Let us deflate the belief of the American public and American media that the clear and present danger to our nation’s children is wandering into a hot air balloon and floating away. Let us remember what is truly at stake and come back down to earth.


A Disillusioned Viewer


5 Responses to “Dear American Media,”

  1. katie October 27, 2009 at 12:56 am #

    I loved this post! I wrote a post (not an op-ed) about this and how embarrassing it was for society and how all the attention is giving the Heene family exactly what they want. I thought your point about the 24-hour news cycle “eating our children alive” was really interesting and this was a perfect example.

  2. Taylor Friedman October 27, 2009 at 3:19 am #

    I think that while this post does a good job of questioning the media’s priorities, you are also doing something here that the media is guilty of: making misleading statements. “A Chicago youth is more likely to die from a drug overdose or be a victim of gang violence than they are to graduate from high school. The same goes for inner cities around the nation.” Did you get that statistic from somewhere? That type of statement should be attributed, and “being a victim of gang violence” could mean tons of things. That’s like saying more children are likely to be affected by a car accident than graduate from high school. Everyone is affected by a car accident in some way, whether they know someone or have been in an accident personally, and people can be a victim of gang violence in many ways.

    Also, by grouping the two together, “are likely to die of a drug overdose AND be a victim of gang violence,” it makes the situation seem much worse. Probably few kids die of drug overdoses, at least far less than the amount who graduate from high school, but probably a lot more youth are somehow victims of gang violence. Putting them together — that combination — is what puts them over the rate of graduates, and it is spurious reasoning. It’s like saying, “A child is more likely to be eaten by a shark or be affected by a car accident than he or she is to graduate.”

    So while the media should be focusing on the nation’s true problems, like you are advocating for, they need to be especially careful about how they present that information to an already wary, fearful public.

  3. Taylor Friedman October 27, 2009 at 3:22 am #

    Sorry, I meant to say die of a drug overdose OR being a victim of gang violence, which is very different than AND in this case.

  4. S. Hummel November 13, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    I definitely see your point that the media sometimes entertains a love affair with stories that are relatively unimportant and meaningless to society at large. “Balloon boy” is absolutely absurd when you consider the amount of national attention it garnered, how quickly news spread, and how long the story lasted in headlines.

    But it’s also a very entertaining news piece, and I believe that the American public is also at fault because we slurp this sort of stuff up. News media is still a business; they need to find a way to cater to their audience’s desires… and if they can’t fulfill that aspect then it won’t matter for long how newsworthy their material is as a whole.

    The key for news providers is to find the balance between marketable news and important news. I’m confident that the American public knows what they’re getting.

  5. Rachel December 2, 2009 at 2:51 am #

    I agree with the last comment. True, it’s not responsible reporting, and it’s stupid that that story got so much attention, but they’re trying to make money. It’s more the American public’s fault than anything because they watch and read this stuff. It may not seem fair, but when there’s a story about gang violence or drug issues, nobody’s interested because they’ve heard it a million times before. Unless there’s some sort of novelty involved, it’s not important to most people.

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